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Another Guest post by Yajun: Han Han and the tragedy of the Chinese Educational System

The New York Times published an article about Han Han last week. In the article, Graham Lee, a Hong Kong native studying in Peking University was quoted saying “His way of thinking is different from that of ordinary Chinese.”

At first glance, this sentence sounds offensive. How do ordinary Chinese think? However, thinking for a second, I am not surprised that he felt this way.

In any other country, I don’t think Han Han would be that special. His criticisms and the courage to challenge authority, even the having the balls  to drop out of high school, are common characteristics of young people around the world. He is a very good writer, that’s for sure, but in most places his writing wouldn’t be enough to make him one of the most popular bloggers and an iconic figure. However, in China, what Han Han says and does has value.

When I was in college, I was a fan of Han Han. His books opened my eyes and mind. For the first time in my life, I realized students could criticize and analyze profoundly the problems of the China’s education system. His words were harsh, but they were just so true.

Throughout elementary school, middle school and high school, and even in college, I thought passing exams was all that education was about. Reading books other than textbooks seemed a waste of time. And thinking about questions, rather than memorizing the expected answers on the exam, was not a required skill for getting the all-important high test scores. That was education, and I never thought about questioning what it all meant. I was one of a great number of students fed through the system. We were encouraged to obey and to follow. Anybody who challenged this system, for example dating a girl, or developing a hobby, was labeled as a problem student.

Late in my college career, after reading more books and talking with more people, I realized I spent the first 20 years of my life learning bullshit. It was all basically useless for real life. I, and hundreds of millions of students in China, had been cheated.

We don’t want to be single-minded idiots filled with minds filled by doctrines and propaganda. We love Han Han because he says what we want to say. However, it is hard for many people to speak out because their courage and their ability for independent thinking have been strangled such a long time ago. China’s education killed our chance of developing critical thinking skills and as such may well have  stifled millions of other potential Han Hans.

The saddest thing is that today, millions of students in China’s education system are still suffering from the exam culture, and it’s even worse than when I was a student. Parents and teachers went through the system themselves, and they still let the same things happen to their children. However, in the big exam machine, they don’t have other options. If their children want to go to a better school and get better jobs in the future, they have to sign up for all kinds of classes and tutorials, and Olympia Maths, English courses…anything to get ahead even though it’s all completely useless, just academic hucksters looking to make a buck on the anxieties of middle class parents. Today these children are the victims of China’s educational system. Tomorrow, they will become Chinese citizens who cannot think for themselves.


Yajun (A.K.A. Mrs. Granite Studio) works in the Beijing bureau of The Christian Science Monitor.  You can read her latest article for the Monitor here. Her last posts for The Granite Studio were on the recent Chinese student demonstrations in Paris and a review of Peter Hessler’s Country Driving.  She would like to strongly point out that she “is not a guest” since it’s her computer.  Fair point.

23 Comments on Another Guest post by Yajun: Han Han and the tragedy of the Chinese Educational System

  1. …and yet you learned to think for yourself, yajun. while there is a real human cost in this sort of 填鴨 education, the maoist era proved, i think, that no amount of propaganda can permanently or universally force people’s minds to work a certain way, if it conflicts with their own human nature or their own experience. in the short term, yes, but eventually the cognitive dissonance eats away at it, at least for some. much as with the kids in texas that will have to use those gawdawful right wing textbooks, it’ll produce as much delayed disillusionment and knack at sniffing out bullshit as it will conformist mindsets.

    especially if that education turns out not to even be practically useful.

  2. The problem with Han Han is the same one that Ai Weiwei has: neither of them presents any sort of positive alternative. They’re pointing out the ridiculousness of the system, which is useful in itself, but they haven’t actually got any suggestions for fixing things. Both of them strike me as being sort of like Chinese versions of Michael Moore: I’m glad they’re out there doing their thing, and we;re on basically the same side, and I’m sure that what they’re saying comes as news to some people, but mostly they offer only facile takes on complex problems. Necessary, certainly — but insufficient.

  3. I’m a 26-year-old Chinese educated right here in China all the way through college. I would say about 5 percent of my school mates managed to keep their critical thinking skills. What we have in common is probably that we never took school, or ourselves for that matter, seriously.

    For us, Han Han is someone who keeps saying “one and one is two”. We are like, “yeah, of course, what else could it be?”

    Personally I love Han Han because he speaks common sense in a continuously amusing way. His stuff is always a good read, with a taste of freedom.

    No other Chinese writer writes like a free man other than Han Han and 连岳.

  4. Shandong province exams system with “one side effect of the reform”
    (i like that ‘Editor’s note’ was added labeled ‘Update’)

  5. Reminds of the days where all you had to do was memorize the writings of Confucius, and pass the exam, to get a government job.

    If it makes you feel any better, the US public school system is rapidly devolving into a ‘teach the test’ system itself. Large part of that can be laid at the feet of a certain no nothing party and a recent past president. On the other hand, public schools in the US were NEVER supposed to teach critical thinking skills. If you read the editorials written at the time of the public school systems founding, they discuss only educating the people enough that they would be valuable as factory laborers and the like. They expressly said the purpose wasn’t to develop writers, scientists, etc. The US had ‘enough’ of those, and they of course came from the wealthy families, private schools and Ivy league type universities.

    The motto in the US, should anyone be honest about our public education system, is “Don’t educate, Indoctrinate!”

    This should also explain why are population is so damn ignorant and gullible – it is by intention. The ruling class does not like competition.

  6. They will never educate the Chinese students to have a critical spirit ’cause it’ll make the new generation begin to question the legitimacy of the authorities. Fortunately some youngsters like Han Han survived. I don’t know if that’ll enough for us to being hopeful…

  7. This makes me feel good about moving back to Britain. I like living here, but I really don’t want my kids to go to primary school here. Middle school, maybe, we can come back and they can 吃苦 for a while, but while they’re under ten, I want them to have a bit of fun, meet odd people, not get too stressed about exams.
    I think Brendan’s standards are a bit high. Michael Moore’s not sufficient? Sure but who is? I think MM’s absolutely inspirational, I don’t remember documentaries getting any play in the multiplexes when I was a kid. He’s taken an entertainment genre and turned it into a message genre. Han Han appears to be trying to do the reverse, which is just as cool.

  8. Phil H: I’m with Brendan. What Michael Moore, Han Han and Ai Weiwei do is all well and good, and necessary (although I can’t help but suspect Ai is more than just a little bit mad… And the insistent, constant vulgarity does get a little old… ), but where is the positive, constructive alternative? One thing I remember all too well from my student activist days is that it’s really easy to be against something, but it’s really hard to stand for something. So Han Han can criticise, and Ai Weiwei can 骂 (for some reason I’ve always found it hard to translate that word adequately), but who’s putting forward a constructive suggestion for a positive alternative?

    Yajun, for the last couple of days I’ve found this post frustrating because it didn’t seem to be getting any comments, while the post on “laowai” had plenty, and yet this is a far more important topic. Let me just state that you wrote in perfect clarity everything that bothers me about China’s education system. I’m looking forward to more guest posts from you.

  9. This made me laugh out loud (really): “She would like to strongly point out that she “is not a guest” since it’s her computer. Fair point.”

  10. The Peking Duck's Resident Poet // August 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm //

    How come Yajun’s and Mia’s (commenter above) English is so good?

  11. Why wouldn’t it be? I don’t know Mia but Yajun’s English is very good. (And her French is decent too.)

  12. @Peking Duck’s resident poet
    1. English is the easiest language to learn in the world.
    2. Your standards are low.

    Martin Amis’s English is good. My English is communication efficient.

  13. The Peking Duck's Resident Poet // August 13, 2010 at 7:13 pm //

    I’ve lived in China for more than 3 years (based in Shenzhen) and I’ve never, ever met a mainland Chinese person who could speak English without one/two glaring mistakes per sentence, let alone write it. That includes people who had lived in the US for decades, people with Ph.Ds etc.

    Also, given that I have never, ever seen even one web-site of any one Chinese company that could get plurals or tenses consistently right – with the exception of English-language newspapers, but with those I assumed they had at least some foreign staff – I could be excused for thinking that mainland Chinese people proficient in English are very, very hard to find.


    BYD has about 130,000 employees and serves customers worldwide. Yet you’ll be hard pressed to find even one sentence correct on their web-site – or on the web-site of any other Chinese car manufacturer.

    ICBC is actually the world’s largest bank in terms of market capitalization (yes, the world’s largest bank offers things like Peony Money Link Card:

    QUOTE — Peony Money Link Card advocates “self, self-determination and self-service” . Owning Peony Money Link Card, you will find that life becomes more free, more convenient and faster and more colorful. — UNQUOTE

    By the way, even English-language media often makes embarrassing mistakes – forget about Global Times’ famous Alessandro – how about this:

    “Features like “Xingjing in my eyes” and “Xingjinag, my hometown”are designed to reflect Xingjiang’s local life.”

    One sentence, three different spellings of the pinyin of the name of a CHINESE PROVINCE. And their OWN WEB-SITE’S NAME, incidentally. Plus “approad” instead of “approach” but why do I bother with minor stuff…

    I know I sound like a prick, but you guys, here, on this web-site, even got punctuation right. Space after a comma or a dot! Goodness gracious! I thought I’d never see the day.

    China *is* changing after all.

  14. The Peking Duck's Resident Poet // August 13, 2010 at 7:49 pm //

    Two more examples:

    1) Foxconn. The geniuses there manufacture basically every piece of advanced electronics hardware known to man, including every Apple product, the Amazon Kindle, hell, you name it. Foxconn is huge and global.

    But can any of their employees type good English? 🙂

    Look around the web-site, there is nothing that is not Chinglish.

    2) Intercontinental Hotel in Shenzhen. This is one of the most exclusive hotels in China. Jiang Zemin and his buddies are often in the lobby, the rates are huuumongous, the ingredients for everything carefully selected and shipped across the world…

    Guess who is typing every invitation and proofreading every document?

    The General Manager. (He is Dutch.)


    Because he’s the only one who can 🙂

  15. Resident Poet,

    I have three colleagues from the PRC who either have completed or are just now completing 300+ page dissertations at my university and a fourth who just completed a book to be published by a major university press. Yajun has been writing for the Monitor for about a year now (see link above for her most recent article) and I know plenty of Chinese who read, write, and speak at a high level of fluency.

    It’s an elite group to be sure, but they are there…they just aren’t the sort of people who take jobs as web designers or office drones.

    I also have to say…I thought Mia’s answer was quite clever.

    Ps. If your claim about the punctuation is correct, then this is probably one of the few posts on the site that can claim to be free of punctuation error. As longtime readers know, this native speaker has always improvised on punctuation, especially comma placement.

  16. The Peking Duck's Resident Poet // August 13, 2010 at 11:02 pm //

    Mia’s answer was clever indeed.

    But if my standards are low… what does that say about the standards of every single school, university and company in China.

  17. @Peking Duck’s resident poet
    1. You are absolutely right about the abundance of poor English in this country. It bothers me when people forget to hit the space bar space after a comma. It bothers me when people don’t differentiate “anytime” and “any time”. It bothers me when people use redundant phrases like “shrug one’s shoulders”. It bothered me a tiny bit, for a nano-second, when you wrote “why do I bother with minor stuff” in a sentence without ending with a question mark.

    But lowering the standards is not going to help.

    2. When you think of it, most Chinese have insultingly low standards for foreigners’ Chinese as well. It’s not fair for those non-Chinese who use the Chinese language correctly, neither.

    3. All this reminds me of how George Carlin used to lecture people on the difference between the English and the Italian “forte”. Is there anybody out there still doing things like that?

  18. “sImprovised on punctuation, especially comma placement” – lol

  19. edit then post, oh well…and I’m ‘GerMerican’.

  20. The Peking Duck's Resident Poet // August 14, 2010 at 9:46 am //


    Apart from English, what other languages have you tried?

    English used to be my third language, now it’s become my first just because I’ve been using so much. My French is just as good, then there’s my native language, which I won’t disclose because I don’t want posters over at the Peking Duck to know where I’m from (otherwise the trolls would endlessly pick on it, for my nation is quite backward), a good bit of Latin (both Church and Classical) and a good bit of Portuguese.

    I’ve went through about 5 different attempts to learn Mandarin, but in the end I gave up – after painfully going over it about a million times in my mind. There were three parts to this: one, no matter what would happen, it’d never help me in my career, two, I’ve never read in translation any Chinese literature that I’ve gotten really enthusiastic about (by God, how I’ve tried to find some), and three, unfortunately, nearly everyone I’ve met in China was an illiterate bastard who treated me poorly. (Don’t take any offense at this – most of my co-nationals would probably treat Chinese just the same, to be honest.)

    In the end, China just didn’t work out for me, though I’ve tried desperately, desperately to make it do so. I’m quite bitter about it to be honest – anyone would be.

    Actually I even have huge appreciation for Chinese people truly literate in Chinese – just because I’ve tried to learn it and I know how hard it is. One day, after reading this classic piece of work:

    I actually went around my office myself, asking all of my Chinese colleagues to write “打喷嚏”. That day, none could get the third character right.

    I did find later a girl who could actually write “sneeze”, and I will always think she is a truly remarkable genius!

    (Asking Chinese people to write this seems to be turning into a hobby:


    • @Peking Duck’s resident poet
      1. I have tried to learn Gernman, Russian and Japanese, and failed miserably.

      2. There is no decent Chinese writers on the mainland. Personally I think all of them, except Han Han and Lian Yue, read like they would trade freedom of speech for 3 bowls of rice. You will have to look to Taiwanese writers. 龙应台 is my favorite. She writes both fictions and non-fictions beautifully.

      3. I’m sorry you met so many Chinese “bastards”. I meet my fair share of them on a daily basis. I guess all we can do is to try to stay the hell away from them.

      4. I couldn’t care less about where people are from. It has very little to do with who they are. Being born in a good/bad place is not an accomplishment or handicap of your own.

      5. I can’t write “sneeze” either. The Chinese rely 98% on pinyin to write (type) and 100% on characters to read. That’s why we can’t write properly, and the language won’t get “romanized” either.

      6. However you are disappointed in life, please don’t lower your standards.

  21. wow, a through-the-looking-glass laowai example of the “哇,你的國語說得很好啊” conversation! now i’ve seen it all.

  22. I hate talking about the Chinese educational system because, as a foreign teacher, I make my living preying on the fear of Chinese parents and suffering of Chinese students. Obviously Chinese schools are not all doom and gloom, and there is a sense of camraderie that is impossible to find in American schools, but for the most part I loathe the Chinese educational system. I loathe myself more for not really being able to do anything about it besides make money. Hell, I got in real hot water when, after agreeing to teach my problem cousin-in-law, I just let him do nothing for a week instead of studying because I did not want to contribute to his crappy summer. If the kid fails to shape up, for the rest of my life I will be blamed for it befcause I did not demand four hours of English homework (on top of his other homework) a day for a two-week period. I can only imagine the crap he has to go through.

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